“In terms of honouring Victorian produce, I don’t think there’s a better representation on the menu,” says Jacqui Challinor. The executive chef at Reine – Melbourne’s biggest restaurant opening of the year, in the city’s most opulent dining room, within the 1890s neo-Gothic former Stock Exchange building – isn’t talking about the oysters or caviar or confit rabbit on the ritzy menu. She’s spruiking the soft serve.
“We had somebody come in the other day and say, ‘It’s just like Maccas’. I think they meant it as an insult but I was like, ‘Cool, thanks, that’s what we were going for’. But with great ingredients.”
Challinor makes hers with Gippsland Dairy jersey milk before it’s drizzled with Little Pier extra virgin olive oil and topped with Mornington Peninsula hazelnuts. In an Instagram post she called it “the simplest and most nostalgic celebration of all things Victorian”.
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“I think that’s a really cool thing to do,” she tells Broadsheet. “To evoke nostalgia and memories in people and have a bit of fun with food. Like, let’s not take ourselves too seriously. At the end of the day we’re cooking food. People should enjoy it and it should be fun and engaging.”
She’s also putting up a southern rock lobster cocktail (served in its shell), a very lavish spin on the prawn cocktail she served at Nomad. The prawn cocktail is also a signature at Gimlet’s old-world sibling bar Apollo Inn, in Melbourne, where it’s served with horseradish sauce, a fresh salsa verde and crisp curly endive, and lacto-fermented hot sauce on the side.
“People love it, especially with a drink pre- or post- dinner,” says Ben Pollard, executive chef of Trader House, the group behind Apollo Inn, Gimlet and more. “I think it’s a bit of nostalgia for everyone: comfort food and going back to the classics. Everyone can reinvent food and change things but I think going back to the classics is important.
“We always look back at the classics when developing the menus. At Cumulus Inc we’re about to put a profiterole on with ice-cream and hot chocolate sauce. And the rum baba is always on at Cumulus, that’s a classic … The Builders Arms always has a classic dessert or a classic entree, like a caesar salad or a take on that.”
From seafood cocktails to devilled eggs, vol-au-vents, savoury eclairs, Jatz crackers and cheese fondue, Australia’s top chefs appear to be mining grandma’s recipes and the pages of old Women’s Weekly cookbooks for menu inspiration. In part driven by our increasing appetite for comfort and familiarity in weird times, the hottest new bars and restaurants in the country are putting up dishes that would fit right in at a ’70s dinner party. Thankfully, they’re leaving some of the decade in situ (though I’m curious to know if anyone’s doing R&D on an elevated apricot chicken) and presenting new takes on old favourites.
“We wanted the menu to feel familiar and warm, like a dinner party that would have happened years ago,” says Dani Whitehart of Melbourne’s Bar Bellamy. The menu at her cosy Carlton bar has included coq au vin, baked cheese and crudites, chips and dip, devilled eggs, and bread and butter pudding (served with sourdough ice-cream).
“We’ve had a lot of people saying, ‘Aw, I remember this!’ or ‘My grandma made these!’”
says co-owner and partner Oska Whitehart. “We had someone who works in the area come in for a knock-off and they had a Gibson and a devilled egg and they said, ‘Aw dad would be so proud of me’,” he says, laughing.
The devilled eggs are equally popular at Poodle, Fitzroy’s Euro-inspired bar and bistro that’s also plating up camembert fondue with leatherwood honey, profiteroles with spanner crab and cod roe, seaweed madeleines with caviar, and prawn cocktail vol-au-vents.
“When my wife Zoe [Rubino] and I were deciding what Poodle was going to be we were inspired by the classic old-world bistros of Paris we visited as well as these longstanding institutional steakhouses of New York, where you’d find a prawn cocktail on the menu and a raw seafood selection on ice,” says co-owner Emilio Scalzo.
“At the time there wasn’t much of that going around Melbourne and we thought it’d be a unique angle to take, and a fun idea, to incorporate dishes you’d either find on a longstanding menu at a French bistro or in a Woman’s Day cookbook into a more contemporary space.”
“I think it creates a talking point,” he continues. “It’s something somebody may interpret as a fun novelty to begin with, but at the end of the day these weren’t flash-in-a-pan dishes – they stand the test of time because they’re good dishes.”
The retro revival isn’t just trending in Melbourne. Miso devilled eggs are on the menu at new Adelaide wine bar Alt; Perth diners are downing pie floaters at Nieuw Ruin and pitting Scotch egg against Scotch egg at Bar Rogue, Edward & Ida’s and Bertie; and Mitch Orr’s famous Jatz crackers at Sydney’s Kiln have proven so popular they’ve inspired other renditions – chef Savannah Sexton at Adelaide’s House of George put Ritz on the menu. (At their previous gig, Goodwood’s Good Gilbert, Sexton plated up retro Australian dishes like Wonder White with a sustainable seafood platter, a caesar salad-inspired tartare and a Viennetta with miso caramel.)
“I think it’s got a lot to do with having a sense of playfulness with food,” says Oska. “Being able to play with your food seems to be encouraged more. Having a sense of fun when you’re going out dining and interacting with your food … and bringing out a sense of childhood fun. For instance, we went to a party of a friend and they had fairy bread – it’s enjoyable.”
Challinor agrees. “Everybody has their favourite chocolate bar as a kid or their favourite ice-cream from the petrol station or their favourite after-school TV snack,” she says. “When you can turn that into something that’s a little bit fine-dining, you’re never not going to have a positive response from people.
“I saw it so strongly after Covid when we did the general store at Nomad, we were pulling out flavours we had as kids, like neenish tarts. People went bananas over it because they can associate with it, and they understand the flavour combinations and it reminds them of being a kid.”
Dani points to the last few years as a particular catalyst for the sentimental and wistful longing for the past. “When the world gets dark – especially in Victoria, we had fires and lockdowns, it’s been a pretty full-on few years – we start leaning back into the familiar and comfortable.”
It could also be another symptom of the past decade’s casualisation of restaurant culture and the rejection of stiff service, starched tablecloths and silent dining rooms. Not to mention the move away from complex cooking with fancy French techniques and tweezers towards old-time-y traditions such as smoking, fermenting and pickling. (I’m gonna go ahead and submit the appearance of Italian comfort foods and “cucina povera” like cacio e pepe, vodka pasta, mortadella and ’nduja on wine bar menus around the country – not to mention new spins on spring rolls, prawn toast and other Cantonese-Australian favourites – as further proof.)
“We went through a long period of time where everything had to be clean and sharp and very modern in execution,” adds Scalzo. “Whereas I think people are sort of basking in a bit of nostalgia, for whatever reason.”
“I can speak for myself – I want to be able to sit at a table and laugh and make noise and have a glorious old time,” adds Challinor. “I don’t go out to restaurants anymore that are stiff and quiet and intimidating. I like to eat with my hands and make a mess – I don’t want to sit at a table for four hours. It’s not irrelevant, that style of dining has a place and there’s a market for it. But what we do here isn’t that,” she says of Reine. “I think people assume with the grandness of the dining room it’s going to be this three-hatted fancy thing and we’re not that.”
“We’re still slinging soft serves,” she says, laughing. “We’re approachable and fun and loud and busy and boisterous and that makes people feel wonderful and warm.”